Legislative harmony over water dwindling
By Dan Chapman
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
5:05 p.m. Friday, March 12, 2010
This week, the House and Senate near-unanimously passed water conservation bills, a rare act of legislative harmony whenever “water” and “Georgia” are mentioned in the same preamble.
The legislative bonhomie, though, didn’t last long.
Two bills introduced earlier this week, both related to the transfer of water between Georgia river basins, are already raising temperatures between metro Atlantans and South Georgians.
The innocuous-sounding River Basin Protection Act (HB 1301; SB 462) would tighten rules on the so-called inter-basin transfer of water. The equally benign-sounding Water System Interconnection Redundancy and Reliability Act (SB 442) would investigate contingency plans to head off a water emergency, i.e. drought.
Make no mistake, though: Both bills offer potential flash points across Georgia, as well as in Alabama and Florida, which are suing Georgia over the sharing of the Chattahoochee and Coosa rivers.
And a federal judge ruled last summer that Georgia has no legal right to take so much water from Lake Lanier. Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson decreed that metro Atlanta will no longer be able to tap much of Lanier if no water-sharing deal with Alabama and Florida is worked out by mid-2012.
SB 442, introduced by Sen. Dan Weber (R-Dunwoody), would require the 15-county Metro North Georgia Water Planning District to identify how water could be further shared across the district.
“The public expects us to have a plan in place should an emergency scenario arise,” said Jaillene Hunter, spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. “It is incumbent upon state leaders to proactively think through a variety of strategies in order to meet the water needs of our citizens.”
North Georgia includes the headwaters for a handful of river systems including the Chattahoochee and Etowah rivers. Water is routinely transferred between the district’s river basins. It is against state law, though, for water outside the North Georgia district to be transferred into it.
Roughly 17 million gallons daily of Etowah River water is pumped over a ridge and into Cobb County’s water system before ending up in the Chattahoochee River, according to Joe Cook, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative.
By July 31, 2011, according to Weber’s bill, the state must have a plan in place for the sharing of water among North Georgia water systems. In an emergency, for example, Fayette County might be ordered to sell water to Gwinnett County — which is almost entirely dependent on under-the-gun Lake Lanier. Or Cobb could take more of the Etowah.
“There’s an argument to be made that we have plenty of water so we can spare some,” said Cook. “But the sentiment of everybody downstream in the Coosa Valley, Cartersville, Rome and Alabama is that if water is taken out upstream, you better put it back in the basin.”
Cook and others also question what constitutes an “emergency.” A severe drought, like the one that lasted between 2006 and 2009? Or simply the arrival of another half-million thirsty Atlantans over the next decade?
Opponents also take issue with the bill’s insistence that the emergency water-sharing plan be kept secret so as not to “compromise security against sabotage or criminal or terrorist acts.”
Environmentalists, many South Georgians and 92 House and Senate legislators mostly prefer HB 1301, which would tighten rules on the transfer of 100,000 gallons or more of water daily between river basins. The Metro Atlanta Chamber “vigorously” opposes the bill, which would “severely limit access to current water supplies for numerous communities in Georgia,” according to President Sam Williams.
While the legislation wouldn’t outlaw water transfers, it would become much more difficult to undertake. Supporters want greater notification of pending inter-basin transfer permits and the establishment of roughly two dozen additional, time-consuming and potentially litigious criteria before allowing any transfers.
“This sends a good message to Georgia’s neighbors that it’s very serious about managing its river system,” said Gil Rogers, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.